This month, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” turns 60. In recent years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has sparked criticism for how it addresses race and racism. Some have labeled it having a white savior complex.
The novel, set in the 1930s in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, is anchored around the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch, a white man, serves as Robinson’s lawyer. Widely considered a coming-of-age novel, the story is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, Atticus’ daughter, who is six years old when the book begins.
As the book marks its 60-year milestone, and as teachers prepare for fall, Pittwire reached out to Geoffrey Glover, a lecturer in the Department of English in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, for a conversation about the book amid renewed controversy—and guidance on how to approach it in the classroom.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is studied in classrooms across America. More recently, the book has come under scrutiny. Where do you see it being problematic?
That’s one of the things I’ve been getting my students and teachers to focus on. The very idea that this novel actually speaks about racism as a complex well-rounded treatment is a bit of a misnomer.
Rather, it approaches racism from one direction—from an external, white outsider mentality. The focus of the novel is zeroed in on either Scout as an innocent character or Atticus, a paragon of moral virtue standing up against injustices. But what’s lost in that is the focus on Black humanity and Black complexity. We have Tom Robinson, who is literally killed by the system of judicial practice that is going on during this time period. That’s often neglected in these discussions. The text moves us away from that and moves toward a portrait of white courage, even white guilt to a certain extent.
That said, if we can’t modernize the discussion of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we’re doing a disservice to the spirit of the book.
So, do you think the novel should be taken out of curriculum altogether?
I still believe this text should be taught, but how it’s taught should be carefully contextualized.
It also matters when it’s taught. The discussions are different in middle school, high school and college classrooms. I would argue that you may need to teach it more than once. Revisiting it would encourage students to actually see their growth in their understanding of racism as a systemic process and their growth in their participation in that system, whether voluntary or not.
What are reasons that the novel should be taught?
We can hold the novel up as an early attempt of dealing with racism. It deals with race as a problem of personal morality. That’s the implication you get. There’s a loss of innocence we see in the story, that gaining of experience and the moral compass of the story. Especially if you locate it in Scout versus Atticus. Race is a problem that can be addressed through multiple generations. It acknowledges that white America needs to own this problem too.
The story also recognizes the interconnectedness of race, class and gender. The crime that’s investigated is a rape of a white woman of lower class by a Black man. The woman is questionable in her credibility because of her class, and the Black man isn’t believed because of his race. It reflects the story of Emmett Till. It’s not just an issue of race, but also of class and gender.
The book does promote an early form of anti-racism that we are building off of and adding to now. You can see it as a process novel. It’s an early step in formulating an anti-racist mentality for the majority of the United States. It does imply that white Americans should fix inequality following years of inequality.
What are some better ways to approach this novel?
One way to approach it is to de-center whiteness. You can have an oppositional reading of the text that focuses on the few instances of Black characters and give students the opportunity to create their own meaning for some of the scenes.
Teachers can also have their students act out certain scenes. You have white characters who are given a whole lot of direction through the text, but consider asking students, “What are Tom’s motivation for scenes, how is he acting? How would you portray that?” You can go into depth into these characters by changing the medium.
In the book, the Ewells are poor white individuals; they aren’t good or upstanding. That’s a good thing. It shows there are ranks of power and control within whiteness. In classrooms, we can talk about how those are constructed and maintained. Important questions to ask are: “What does whiteness mean in the 1960s, when it was written? What does it mean in the 1930s when the book is set? And what does it mean now?” Those are three historical contexts we have to balance as readers.
How about framing Atticus, the classic hero figure in the story?
I think we should be de-romanticizing Atticus. The reasons why are clearer when you look at Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” In that story, Scout returns to her hometown later in life and is dealing with her father, who hasn’t aged well. He’s more than arguably racist in this second story. That suggests that his actions in the novel may not be motivated by a heroic need to right the wrongs of racial inequality in America. Rather, he just likes the idea of fairness, order and continuity and dislikes the idea of chaos and illegal behavior of all kinds.
This is a discussion that can be valuable to students. But if you hold him up as a hero, it undermines the complexity that we don’t like to see in our heroes. It’s an interesting way of teaching the text.
You mention pairing the novel with something else is also a good approach. Do you have any suggestions?
There are a host of different readings you can pair it with to meet different purposes. For talking about a Black child’s interaction with racism versus white child’s interaction with racism, and the loss of innocence they both experience, I’d pair it with “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison—obviously for college students.
“Recitatif,” a short story also by Toni Morrison, is another. The characters in this story are never defined by their race; there are no racial markers. We, the readers, bring race into it. So, consider reading this short story and then bring that process into “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
There’s Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.” It humanizes Black experiences and the legacy of slavery and racism. Compare that that approach to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s interesting because “Kindred” a time-travel story about a Black woman in the 1970s who travels back in time and is enslaved.
“Internment,” by Samira Ahmed is another one. It talks about being crushed under institutional racism from a Muslim’s perspective. That in and of itself is valuable because it’s talking about different vectors of the same problem.
Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” or “Battle Royale” both focus on the failure of institutions to support help or free African Americans during the middle of the 20th century.
“They Eyes are Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston is another.
My personal favorite: “If He Hollers Let Him God,” by Chester Himes. It’s very much about Black rage and rage against institutions of racism. It links to the despair Tom felt as he went to escape.
How are conversations about this book different today than they may have been as recent as last year?
Just in the past three months, we’re seen a massive transformation in the kind of social discussion we’re having and the awareness of policing and law enforcement.
You can actively see an awareness by larger groups of people. Folks that may not have concerned themselves with race at all may now be thrust into these conversations they can’t help but deal with. They may feel indicted or oppressed themselves. We may not have been able to have that conversation last year. I don’t think the same people would’ve shown up.